Forbes Burnham
by Rakesh Rampertab
Page 2 of  2

THE judicial system also became replete with PNC sympathizers and members and as early as 1968, those who did not approve of Burnham were quietly forced to practice the legal professions in other countries. One such person was J.A. Luckhoo Jr. (the first Guyanese to hold the post of Chief Justice, 1960). It was also necessary for the head of the judicial system, or attorney general, to favor Burnham’s opinions. The PNC presence in the judicial system was confirmed by the flying of the party flag on the Court of Appeals building. This presence also stretched itself over to the media and unions. The Guyana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) and the Daily Chrocicle, Guyana’s primary newspaper, fell under the direct governance of the PNC. Newsprint for other papers, primarily for the PPP, was seized, especially at elections. Two Trade Orders (no. 86 of 1971 and no. 86 of 1972) infringed the freedom of expression once guaranteed under the Article 12(1) of the constitution. Although cost for damages was awarded to the New Guyana Company (publisher or the Mirror), in 1998-79, the court found that the fundamental right to import newsprint was not an essential part of the right to free expression.

Trade unionism in independent Guyana has always been, for the most part, divided like the politics along race and party affiliation, with the PNC garnishing the supports of industrial organs representing the civil service or public sector and Bauxite industry, and unions for the rice (e.g., Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union [GAWU] and sugar industry aligned with the PPP. However, under Burnham’s tenure, trade union activity became heavy suppressed, eventually forcing most unions to move in favor of the PNC. This included the body that headed the umbrella of unions, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and the massive Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU). Where the PNC could not impose its influence in union activities, it infiltrated the industry itself via other methods. This was particularly true in the rice and sugar industries, areas traditionally dominated by Indians. Both received less minimal financial support from the PNC; with time, the government replaced competent people at the Guyana Rice Board with its own supports. The previously profitable rice industry began to crumble due to a reduction in paddy prices paid to farmers, unavailability of machinery parts and foreign exchange to make these purchases, and the break from lucrative markets like Cuba. By the eighties, average acreage under cultivation plummeted from 250,000 to 90,000.

Burnham, for more than a decade, refused to recognize GAWU as the union of sugar workers, but in 1975, to win support in his aim to nationalize the industry, acquiesced a poll calling for this recognition. Yet, it did not prevent the police, army troops, and members of House of Israel from breaking up strikes, the suppression of trade union activities, and the PNC’s own attempt to form a new union for the sugar workers. In some cases, wages were not only frozen; anti-labor legislations (e.g., Labor [Amendment] Act of 1984 [No. 9 of 1984]) were implemented to make judicial decisions favoring workers nugatory or void. When an increase in sugar demand due to the 1973 Middle East war resulted in an increase in profits for sugarcane farmer, Burnham implemented the sugar levy, a tax placed on farmers to divert part of this profit to the government.   

It is ironic considering that Burnham had accused the PPP of providing civil service jobs to the “blue-eyed boys of the [PPP] Party.” Loyalty to the PNC became of paramount importance; criticism meant possible dismissal or harassment, and workers were strongly encouraged to attend PNC rallies, as reflected in this memorandum by the personnel director of GEC, Mr. W.N. James, to all staff (October, 1980), urging an attendance of a PNC rally to be addressed by Burnham; “The importance of the attendance of this historic rally cannot be under-estimated. Your future and indeed the future of your children will be discussed and therefore you must attend.” By 1979, Martin Carter who had now become a fierce critic of the Burnham regime, who would be beaten up by PNC’s loyal thus, wrote in the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) paper, Dayclean, 1979; “The PNC’s method of ensuring self-perpetuation consists of indulging in a deliberate policy of degrading people.” Under Burnham’s PNC, corruption, he noted, had become “a way of life, in which people were made to accept that stealing, cheating, lying, bearing false witness…was a positive sign of loyalty to the regime…”

By 1976, the socialist revolutionary plan to “feed, house and clothe” Guyana began its final plummet. The ETB became a channel that stifled trade due to party favoritism, and the imported economic model faltered due to a lack of international investors (unlike in the US territory). Millions spent in nationalization resulted in staggering losses as most projects failed. The hydroelectric dam in Mazaruni amounted to a US$100 million loss. Ineptitude, corruption, and willful mismanagement (yearly audits neglected etc.) resulted in little production, forcing the government to turn to the IMF/World Bank by 1978. By the time of Burnham’s death, Guyana was some US$2 billion in arrears (US$150 million to Trinidad and US$100 million to Barbados). In addition, despite the lavish foreign tours Burnham undertook with enormous entourages and social projects that failed, millions remained unaccounted for by the PNC.

To have unfettered access to private lands for “public” purposes, Burnham had the constitution amended. The new Acquisition of Land for Public Purposes Act allowed free access to lands with compensation to be provided bases on his economists’ dictates, as opposed to current market value. Burnham’s sprawling but extravagant Hope Estate (Hope, ECD), which included such things as a helipad, and where public servants (primarily weeders and cleaners) were brought to work, was once such acquisition. While Burnham had been able to win US support by claiming to be an anti-communist government, by 1976, US-Guyana relationship became strained when a Cubana airliner exploded over Barbados, killing 11 Guyanese of the 76 dead. Burnham, shockingly, accused the CIA, to which the US State Department in turn called Burnham a “bald-faced liar.”

Throughout his political reign, Burnham had maneuvered as necessity dictated. Or, as Mr. Partrick Walker (head of a British parliamentary delegation to Guiana in 1953 after the constitution is suspended) noted, Forbes Burnham would “tact and turns, as advantages seem to dictate,” and that “his whole political approach is opportunistic.” In the West Indies and Africa (Burnham, Nkrumah, and some West Indian leaders had met secretly in 1957 [despite Jagan’s initial request to such a meeting, he is ignored], during the independence celebration for a new Ghana), he convinced Black leaders that a PPP government meant an “Indian” state. In Washington and London he criticized the PPP as communist and in Havana and Moscow, Burnham announced himself as an anti-imperialist. He benefited from critical US support while having ties with Cuba. Burnham was, in essence, a politician.

It explained why, despite setbacks, the appetite of Burnham the man remained undaunted. His face became synonymous with national colors for national celebrations. He started Mass Games, based on Korean mass dramatization that bordered on propaganda, in which thousands of youths are used to praise their leader and the revolution in splendid costumes, colors, and patriotic fervor. For this, Korean technicians were imported as our students are trained to depict Burnham’s image in revolutionary motifs. Burnham’s interest in diamonds and precious metals that became obvious as early as 1965 when, on a trip to an Amerindian village, he said to the locals, “I know of those who come with the Bible and leave with the diamonds,” grew. Rumors of his massive personal wealth became confirmed when he is listed in international magazines as one of the world’s richest Black men. While he is lauded for replacing the “imperialist” tie and jacket with the shirt jack, as an official formal wear, his reputation of being an unscrupulous individual who enjoyed imposing his will on others magnified. A former University of Guyana (UG) lecturer, Mr. Colin Cholmondeley, noted that Burnham “derived a kind of sadistic pleasure in making people be at his beck and call. He would call ministers, bureaucrats and treat them with such abandon…He dedicated himself to subordination.”

This is one reason for Black supporters referring to Burnham as the “Kabaka” (from Ugandan Baganda tribe, a kingly title), when he began making public appearance in flowing, white robes usually worn by African tribal leaders. The Comrade-Leader also wore dashikis. His strong affinity for Africa, his ancestral homeland, had long been in existence but it is as national leader that Burnham increased his interest in the freedom movements in the oppressed continent. Speaking of Rhodesia, he invoked the image of a universal suffering Black man, noting that in “two world wars, in the War of American Independence, the black man gave his life in the cause of freedom. But today the giants stand still, shackled by technicalities and ‘impotent’ in Rhodesia…This day, however, cannot last for eternity.” After Patrice Lumumba’s murder, Burnham spoke of a connection from the slain leader to himself and his struggles; “He was a man who stood for the right of a people to run their own affairs. He was a man who stood for a strong Congo, and those things for which he stood are sufficient to recommend him to people like me.”

By the seventies, he monitored the action of the UNITA forces fighting in Angola, and also Nkomo’s ZAPU in Zimbabwe. He offered Guyana as a refuge for all African freedom fighters (and Black militants), and also made financial contributions. In his book, Journey to Nowhere—A New World Tragedy, Shiva Naipaul notes that Burnham, on his way to a Conference of Nonaligned Nations held in Lusaka (1970), writes a check for $50,000 that is handed over to President Nyerere of Tanzania, for African freedom fighters. In the Caribbean, the People Revolutionary Government of Grenada was offered both money and Guyana army’s training facilities. Not to be ignored, he welcomed cult leader Jim Jones (paid US$2 million to the government) and Black militant, David Hill (Rabbi Washington), despite the latter having a criminal record in the US, to have residence in Guyana. Jim Jone’s People’s Temple that offered a program of socialist self-sufficiency was filled overwhelmingly with Blacks.

Andrew Salkey, in his Georgetown Journal, (1972), writes, “Everybody knows Cheddie…People say he is too far behind to catch up with Burnham…Burnham is a better politician…Burnham is the sort of politician that leaves you guessing….American really doesn’t understand him the way they think they understand Cheddi.” Salkey goes on to note that “Burnham is the sort of man who sells the Party paper in Bourda Market on Sunday morning,” that he “understand power…I think that Burnham understand the Indian majority, Black minority think better than most people believed.” But as Guyana approached the end of the seventies, Guyanese understanding of Burnham the man and the politician was clear—he had become an erroneously idealistic and ruthless leader taking Guyana deep into a territory of immense economic stagnation.

Despite his military expansionism and party policies to elevate the country’s Blacks, such as the building of housing schemes, many at critical points in being near Indian-populated villages (e.g., Samantha Point near Grove, EBD), hardship prevailed. In 1977, the PPP was able to call a strike along the sugar belt, and another massive strike even began in Linden (names after Burnham), a PNC stronghold. Dissension began to pervade the society as food shortages became commonplace. Burnham called upon Guyanese to consume what is produced locally; the ranks within the party are made to recite lines advocating national self-sufficiency by poet, Kahlil Gibran; “Pity a nation that wears a cloth it does not weave…” The early eighties brought an official ban on numerous imported items like wheaten flour, which Burnham replaced by rice-flour (milled rice). Bread was interpreted as an “imperialist” food. Traditional food outlets (shops) were barred from selling food items and instead, the government established a series of food distribution centers called Knowledge Sharing Institute (KSI).

As antigovernment criticism reached the doorsteps of the government and the army from within their own ranks of supporters/members, Burnham the ingenious politician became intensely selective in choosing loyalists (e.g., Cecil “Skip” Roberts). To prevent any government or military figure from becoming overtly popular, he exercised a policy of reshuffling, which included the appointing of such individuals to foreign posts. As people anticipated the 1978 general elections amidst a renewed wind of opposition, Burnham arrested their expectation with the Referendum Bill (1978), which gave the PNC 2 more years in office. It passed in parliament because the PNC held the required two-thirds majority (37 of 53 seats, gained in the 1973 elections).

Repression of political activity always existed under Burnham, but it became an unofficial government policy in the seventies, beginning with the attempted murder of UG lecturer, Dr. Joshua Ramsammy (PPP) in 1971. In 1972, Dr. Walter Rodney was refused a teaching post at UG. The Registrar noted that there was “no suitable vacancy in the Department of History for someone with your qualification and experience.” On a second attempt, the academic appointment committee considered him, but according to Rupert Charles Lewis in his Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought, the “Burnhamites on the Board of Governors” at UG “overturned the decision.” PPP activist, Arnold Rampersaud, is framed by the PNC for a shooting. He is freed after a third trial in a case that became internationally known. By the end of the decade, tens of opposition activists, primarily from the WPA, are arrested, jailed on false grounds, and beaten. Members of the Ratoon group (UG academics and intellectuals for democracy), are also targeted (e.g., a kidnapping attempt is made on Dr. Clive Thomas). Shortly before Rodney is assassinated in 1980, Edward Dublin and Ohene Koama, men closely associated with Rodney, are murdered.

In 1978, leading members of the WPA, including Drs. Rodney and Roopnarine are falsely accused and tried on arson charges for burning down the OGSMND building. They are eventually found innocent in another internationally known political trial, which included Maurice Bishop as part of the defense team. Unfortunately, Father Bernard Darke (Jesuit priest and photographer for the Catholic Standard) is stabbed to death (1979) in police presence during this trial. Responsible were members of Rabbi Washington’s House of Israel. The House had become a “military organization” with its members being used by the PNC as scab labor and to break up opposition rallies. At one such rally in Kitty, Dr. Rodney is forced to flee the scene by running as House members in police clothing converged. According to Eusi Kwayana, Burnham soon thereafter “commented on Rodney’s prowess as an athlete and promised to send him to the Olympics” to represent Guyana.

Rodney’s presence marked the single most potent threat that Burnham faced as ruler. Rodney was Black and therefore capable of drawing the “Black” vote. Secondly, he too was an intellectual though unlike Burnham. As an expert on African history (Burnham’s history) who was extremely recognized in the Caribbean and Africa, and untainted by the vicious politics of the sixties, he interpreted Black history from a perspective free of political motives. Guyana’s situation became so intolerable that Rodney described it in his pamphlet, “People’s Power, No Dictator,” “in terms befitting filth, pollution and excrement…This is why the WPA repeats the legend of King Midas who was said to have been able to touch anything and turn it into gold. That was called the ‘Midas Touch.’ Now Guyana has seen the ‘Burnham Touch’—anything he touches turns to shit.”

Yet, Rodney’s statement of the “Burnham Touch” is not all encompassing, although it summed up the general feeling of the times. By the end of the seventies, non-Christian holidays such as Phagwah and Youman Nabi were made into national events, both the Canji and Demerara Rivers had bridges, free education existed “from nursery to university,” and major roadways such as the Linden Highway, became realities. One should note, however, that some of these accomplishments were not originally the ideas of Burnham, but were carried across from the pre-Burnham era of rule. Indian Leaders like J.B. Singh long called for Indian holy days to become days of national celebration. The blueprint for the Linden Highway and the beginning of “free “ education, including the birth of the UG originated during the Jagan administration. Some “national” symbols and institutions including the National Cultural Centre (NCS) were not without their controversies.

The NCS was Burnham’s idea. He used money from the Indian Immigration Fund (belonging to and for indentured servants) for this construction. Initially, a committee was established to determine what should be done with this money; its proposal to built three Indian cultural centers in the three counties were discarded by Burnham who, to appease the Indian community, awarded the construction contract to an Indian firm and had Indian religious groups (e.g., Guyana Pandit’s Council) bless the project. The Golden Arrowhead has been criticizes as being a flag that does not truly symbolize the makeup or cultural presence of all six racial groups in Guyana, but is a pseudo-replica of flags to be found in Africa and the flag of a Black power movement headed by Marcus Garvey. Burnham, however, survived because, as he once declared in an interview with the New York Times, he was “all things to all men” in Guyana.

One of those “things” was the brute in the political animal, or, the practical will to eliminate critical opposition figures. The assassination of Dr. Rodney in June 1980 (which the PNC regarded as a “misadventure”) marks the end of any threat to Burnham. One month after, with magnanimous support in the legislative and judicial systems, the government passes a referendum requiring a heavy revision of the Guyana Constitution. The new (1980) constitution gave Burnham unprecedented sweeping authority that could not be challenged in court without his approval (the right to redress in the privy counsel in London was abolished). He became Guyana’s Executive President for Life and Commander-in-Chief of the Army. With these new credentials, he contested the 1980 elections that were, according to the Report of the International Team of Observers at the Elections in Guyana, “rigged massively and flagrantly.” The PNC claimed that it received 77% of the votes; including 34, 784 overseas votes as opposed to the PPP’s 741. Of the 205 regional seats nationwide, the PNC garnished 169. By the year’s end, Burnham single threat was the failure of the meeting in Venezuela over the border issue, which pointed to a possible invasion, prompting the government to issue Defense Bonds in order to boost the military.

Burnham reached his sixtieth birthday in 1983, 20 of those in power. As his role as a politician became less “public,” his legacy is nevertheless exercised through PNC activities. His cabinet grew even larger, twice as large as his first, including his wife and a son-in-law. Despite the economic crisis, the government refused to make foreign exchange available for the purchasing of food or drugs. Instead, the police began a crackdown on the illegal importation of “contraband” goods. Mass exodus of citizens skyrocketed. Meanwhile, a small PNC elite thrived through shareholding, contracts, and ownership of local businesses financed by the party/government. The foreign airline, GUYAMERICA, was allowed to compete with the locally owned Guyana Airways, primarily because government officials held shares. According to the Latin America Bureau, the PNC even ventured into the cinema business briefly, purchasing the film rights of Gandhi, for an estimated US$50,000.

It is interesting that the PNC purchased this particular film right, for although Ghandi was shown in Guyana to mammoth crowds, as expected, and was very appealing to the psychological image of the Indian, the Indian psyche was experiencing severe social and psychological repercussions. It became commonplace to find Indians being bullied by their Black counterparts in any social arena; school, the car park, or at the work place.  This was the direct result of PNC policies that advocated that Guyana belonged to Blacks. In no other avenue was this most dramatized than in the culture of crime that proliferated under Burnham’s tenure. Indians became targeted for both the daytime “choke-and-rob” crimes, while at nights, the more violent “kick-down-the-door” robberies during which where people of Indian descent are brutalized, shot, and women raped. If one is to truly acknowledge the legacy of Burnham, one cannot possibly ignore this atmosphere created by Burnham and the PNC under which the Indian had become a demonized being.

As the mid-eighties approached, Burnham made fewer speeches. One reason was a failure in his voice. In August 1985, after importing all the required machinery and an entire Cuban team of specialists, he underwent surgery to his throat. The operation failed. He died on August 6, with the operation at the Georgetown Hospital, still an obscure affair. No Guyanese doctor was allowed to operate on him, and it is alleged that only his son-in-law (a doctor) was present. The Trinidadian Guardian, on August 11, 1985, in a special article read: “There is always sorrow in death and its uncertainties, and it is traditional and correct to hope that one will be kind to the dead. Forbes deserves no less. His methods and systems, however, deserve no sympathy or support…”

Somewhere between the politician and the man, one realizes that Burnham not only was capacitated with immense practicality and intellectual foresight, but held views that were supposed to mature into panoramic, national visions. But somewhere between the man and the politician, the distinction became blurred, and the man became too much a politician instead of the politician becoming essentially a man. Thus, for a moment, the Guyanese community was offered a glimpse into what could have been, but were then radically urged back to what really was. Martin Carter once noted that Burnham’s pragmatism was “political and not philosophical,” meaning that “a man, like Burnham, who finds himself engaged in the heart-fracturing task of transforming an underdeveloped country, soon isolates what he knew all along—the fact of difference between theory and practice, between what is desirable and what is possible. And becomes impatient.”

Perhaps this is the least polemic but most impartial a conclusion one can arrive at in assessing the legacy of Forbes Burnham, the consummate politician, and Forbes Burnham, the pragmatic opportunist. In the vein of what he represented to both his admirers and those he has suffered, it is not ironic that Forbes Burnham is the only Caribbean leader embalmed for posterity—at the Seven Ponds in the Guyana Botanical Gardens, Georgetown, two blocks away from Cuffy, Guyana’s first national her

Copyright © Rakesh Rampertab 2001  
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